Kiev: Europe’s undiscovered capital

Date Posted: 06/01/2012

As Ukraine’s capital gears up to host the UEFA European Football Championships and the International Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2012, we find out what this relatively undiscovered city break destination can offer to group travel organisers.

Kiev is less familiar to group tourists than many other European cities, but those who have visited will confirm that Ukraine’s capital is among the most beautiful and fascinating that the continent has to offer. While the opening up of the former states of the Soviet Union has seen the likes of Prague and Budapest join the well-beaten track of city break destinations, Kiev remains relatively undiscovered.

This looks set to change in 2012, as the city gears up to host key matches of the UEFA European Football Championships (including the final on 1st July), in addition to the inaugural International Biennale of Contemporary Art - ‘ARSENALE’ - from the 17th May to 1st August, and the opening of the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art Museum Complex (pictured), which will eventually be one of Europe’s largest museums.

Introducing Kiev

The bustling Ukrainian capital is situated on the Dnipro river and has a population of close to three million people. The river divides the town in a north-south direction; the modern centre with surviving parts of the old city are on the green and hilly west, while the capital’s newer sections, characterised by large housing developments and industrialised neighbourhoods, stretch out on the flat left bank. Discerning group visitors can appreciate the plethora of magnificent gold-domed churches, majestic architecture spanning many centuries, the strikingly vibrant art scene and the metropolitan pleasures of a chic cafe society; with its world-class shopping and buzzing nightlife steadily gaining a reputation as second only to Moscow.

The people of Kiev, and of the Ukraine in general, are appreciative of foreign visitors. Groups can expect a friendly welcome and helpful service, with perhaps just a touch of Soviet-era brusqueness in places less touched by outsiders. The lack of familiarity with tourists - which is sometimes manifest in the surprise with which visitors are greeted and an occasional absence of English language signage - is very much part of the appeal of Kiev.

A brief history

Often referred to as ‘the mother of all Slavic cities’, the Ukrainian capital is one of Europe’s largest and oldest cities. Kiev is thought to have been founded in the fifth century by, legend has it, three brothers, Kyi, Schek and Khoryv, and their sister Lybed. An iconic statue of the four siblings - the Foundation of Kiev Monument - stands on the banks of the Dnipro river.

The city prospered during the Russian industrial revolution in the late 19th century. In the turbulent period following this revolution, caught in the middle of several conflicts, Kiev became the capital of several short-lived Ukrainian states. From 1921 the city was part of the Soviet Union, since 1934 as the capital of Soviet Ukraine. In World War Two the city was destroyed again, almost completely, but quickly recovered in the post-war years becoming the third most important city of the Soviet Union and the capital of the second most populous Soviet republic. It now remains the capital of Ukraine, independent since 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Top city sights

Andriyivsky Uzviz: Kiev’s most famous cobble-stoned street, Andriyivsky Uzviz or St Andrew’s Descent, leads from the old town towards the mercantile quarter and port of Podil. The steep meandering street historically connected the governmental part of the Upper City with the Podil - the Lower City where merchants and craftspeople used to live. Often referred to as Kiev’s Montmartre, nowadays the street hosts concerts, art festivals and holiday celebrations, and is a central place for local artists to display their works.

Golden Gate: Modelled on Constantinople’s Golden Gate, the famous Zoloti Vorota was erected in by Prince Yaroslav in 1037 as the main entrance into the ancient city. The gate was largely destroyed in the 1240 Mongol ransacking of Kiev, and today, visitors can view a 1982 reconstruction.

Independence Square: Located in the heart of the capital, the ‘Maidan Nezalezhnosti’ was the scene of the Orange Revolution protests against political corruption and electoral fraud in 2004-05. The square is a centre for public gatherings, national holiday celebrations and cultural festivals.

Khreschatik Street: The city’s main thoroughfare - a grand eight-lane wide, tree-lined boulevard - which becomes a pedestrian precinct on the weekends. Flanked by imposing Stalinist architecture, the street is populated with boutiques and cafes as well as street performers.

Five top museums and galleries

Kiev Museum of Western and Oriental Art: Founded in 1919 on the basis of private collections, today the museum is home to one of the best collections of foreign art in Ukraine, boasting a total of nearly 17,000 artworks.

Kolektsia Gallery, Ya Gallery, Karas Gallery: These venues are promoted as three of the best art galleries for leading Ukrainian artists. 

Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life: This open-air museum is located to the south-west of Kiev, in the picturesque setting of Pirogovo village. The museum was founded in the late 1960s and features a collection of folk architecture from all regions of Ukraine.

Mystetskyi Arsenal: Reportedly the biggest arts and culture project in Ukraine. One wing is already open with the whole Mystetskyi Arsenal building under renovation, which on completion will make it one of the largest museum complexes in Europe.

The National Folk Decorative Art Museum: One of the largest art museums in Ukraine. Founded in 1899, today the museum displays over 75,000 artefacts of Ukrainian traditional folk and decorative art dating from the 15th century.

Five top places of interest

Babi Yar: A ravine situated just outside Kiev, which today is a memorial to the 100,000 Ukrainians who were slaughtered by the Nazis during World War Two.

House with Chimeras: A ‘gloomy house’ designed by architect Gorodetskiy in 1902 as a tribute to his daughter following her suicide. One of the first houses in the capital to be built in cement, the façade of this extraordinary mansion is decorated with sculptures of exotic animal. 

Mariyinsky Palace: Built in the mid-18th century by Bartolomeo Rastrelli in the baroque style, at present the palace is used as the residence for the Ukraine president’s ceremonial purposes. The palace was originally built for Empress Elizabeth in 1755 and it is connected to the Ukraine Parliament, the sole body of legislative power in Ukraine.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War and the Rodin Mat (Motherland) Statue: The 530-ton metal statue of the female warrior is 68-metres high, and stands on a 40-metre pedestal. In the Memorial Hall of the Great Patriotic War Museum, hundreds of funeral letters to the dead soldiers are on display. Every year on Victory Day the Fire of Glory is lit here.

National Opera House: A beautiful building and whether considering booking theatre/opera tickets or not, it is a place worth investigating.

Useful contact:

Mystetskyi Arsenal:

Ukraine Tourism:

Photo credit: Mystetskyi Arsenal

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